Protection

You are my hiding place; you protect me from distress. You surround me with shouts of joy from those celebrating deliverance (Psalm 32:7).

Who can protect us?

Protection is a quite salient matter in a world full of dangers. Many want to speak of “the universe” as if it has some kind of specific will for us or will grant us certain things if we intend or behave in certain ways; yet scientifically it is beyond doubt that the universe is actively trying to kill us. Bacteria and viruses continually beset us. And we have all sorts of dangers in between: weather conditions and natural disasters, let alone what fellow human beings might do to us. It’s dangerous out there!

Some might want to think they live in greater danger today than those who came before us, but upon any level of investigation it would be difficult to sustain that kind of argument. If anything, our ancestors lived in greater dangers: various illnesses, wild animals and hostile weather conditions, natural disasters, and fewer ways to ameliorate the danger. Yet such kinds of comparisons ultimately prove futile: in truth, people have always been in danger; people will never run out of things regarding which they can be afraid and which they believe is dangerous; and therefore people have always looked to find some kind of protector.

As we have become ever more secular and skeptical of authority, many have come to suggest themselves as their own protector, or the protector of others. There is a whole American culture dedicated to the proposition of maintaining and upholding the honor and integrity of the family and friends through protection by any means necessary. It has deep roots in Americana; one easily identifiable source would be a particular Scots Irish frontier libertarian culture and mentality that elevated one’s ability to provide for oneself and one’s family without interference from authorities and protected with vigilance. Such types of perspectives easily meld protection within provision so that when many read, for example, that one who does not provide for one’s family is worse than an unbeliever (as in 1 Timothy 5:8), they understand it to mean not just to provide material and emotional resources but also protection, with violence if need be. We are now at the point when many profess the name of the Lord Jesus and will maintain weapons for violence on their person to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to harm or take the lives of others in the name of protecting those they love. Such is even done within the assembly of the Lord’s people, and is often commended as reasonable and sensible!

We understand the impulse; the desire to protect one’s own life and the lives of those we love and to whom we are dedicated is very strong. But is this the explicit will of the Lord Jesus? And who can really protect us?

The Lord Jesus spoke a word about protection through violence in Matthew 26:52: those who take hold of the sword will die by the sword. It was a message powerfully imprinted upon His disciples: Jesus had said as much to Peter when Peter had taken out a sword in an attempt to protect Jesus, and we never hear of Peter or any other Apostle using or encouraging the use of violence to protect themselves afterward. Such a posture only makes sense in light of what Jesus was about to do: He willingly gave Himself to suffer and die even though He had not done anything wrong. Peter himself would reflect upon this and declare that Jesus entrusted Himself to the God who judges justly and did not retaliate when harmed (1 Peter 2:22-23). Peter understood what Jesus had done as marching orders for those who would follow Him: they should go about doing good for others, even if they suffered for doing so, while entrusting themselves to a faithful Creator (1 Peter 4:19). What would motivate anyone to do such a thing? The testimony of deep, abiding love of God displayed in Jesus for those who sinned and were alienated from God (cf. Romans 5:6-11). As God has loved us even though we have sinned and fallen short of His glory, so we are called to love others in the same way. We are to love those who would hurt us and pray for those who would persecute us (Luke 6:35). Jesus loves the criminal as much as He loves you, me, small children, and everyone else. Jesus wants them all to be saved: even the person who wants to hurt you (1 Timothy 2:4).

So who can protect us? In the days of old few men proved as mighty in battle as David son of Jesse. Yet after he confessed his sins before YHWH because they laid upon him grievously and commended this for others, he confessed YHWH was his hiding place, and that YHWH would protect him from trouble (Psalm 32:1-7). David was surrounded by those shouting for joy because God delivered them (Psalm 32:7).

Throughout the Psalms, in fact, David and other writers reckon YHWH as their refuge, strong rock, strong tower, and place of hiding and protection. They praise YHWH for deliverance. They also warn Israel against trusting in military might for their protection (cf. Psalms 20:7, 146:3). The prophets would utter a similar warning, exemplified in Isaiah 7:1-17: if God’s people trust in military maneuvering and foreign policy and not in their God, they will be humiliated, fail, and incur judgment. They were better off trusting in YHWH as their King and Protector, and YHWH would provide deliverance for them. They did not trust; they sought protection in chariots and foreign policy; and they were overrun and destroyed by chariots and foreign policy.

The faithful and wise people of God have always understood that God, and God alone, can truly protect them. How God has protected His people has manifested itself differently at different times and in different circumstances, and sometimes through very strange means. It is not as if there is no place for violence; God has established civil government to establish justice in the land and to punish evil; God’s people are to let them take vengeance and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7). The rulers of old were held to that standard as well (cf. Isaiah 1:10-17). God helped Israel fight its battles time and again (cf. Exodus 15:1-19). Isaiah envisioned judgment on Aram and Israel to deliver Judah by the hands of the bloodthirsty Assyrians (Isaiah 7:1-17). The same kind of Roman soldiers and guards who helped to execute Jesus protected Paul from death at the hand of the Jewish people almost thirty years later (cf. Acts 21:32-26:32). God will hold all such authorities responsible for how they used and abused their authority; God does not hold responsible those who live, or those who suffer, under it.

It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which it did not look like God protected His people. Plenty of God’s people have died at the hands of raging persecutors. Many others have died at the hands of violent men. Many have suffered exploitation in a thousand different ways. Untold thousands have died of disease or because of natural disasters. That’s a lot of suffering.

But what have we come to expect, and to what end? It is futile to imagine that we can truly protect ourselves or anyone else from every danger. We are not as powerful, and often not in control, as much as we would like to think we are. If protecting others through intimidation or force were as important to faithful Christian witness as many would imagine, why has God not spoken about it? Why did Jesus or the Apostles not model it, and just as importantly, why did Jesus denounce it when one of His disciples actually tried it? When we must speak frequently when God has not spoken it should give us great pause regarding what we are saying. Perhaps we have imported something that was never there in the first place. Perhaps we are not listening to what is being said.

It is a particularly modern delusion to think we are in control and can control our environment. Those who came before us lived by time and chance (Ecclesiastes 9:11); and if we would hear it, so do we. If we will be protected from dangers, it is because God is protecting us. If for whatever reason in God’s economy, be it the freewill decisions of others, the work of the powers and principalities, or perhaps even just unfortunate circumstance, we are called upon to suffer and die, it is not as if God has proven unfaithful. We brought nothing into this world; we cannot take anything out of it (1 Timothy 6:7). We are weak and frail; our strength should have always been entrusted in the Lord and His might (Ephesians 6:10-13). If we would truly want to see our families, friends, and loved ones protected, we do best to entrust them into the hands of God our Protector. If a mighty warrior like David thus trusted in God, perhaps we should also.

In the end, we will all be held accountable for what we have done in the body when we stand before the Lord Jesus (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11). We do best to stand there having entrusted ourselves to our faithful Creator, even through tremendous suffering, humiliation, and degradation, than to stand before a faithful Creator with the weight of the pain, distress, and perhaps even the blood of human beings on our souls and our hands. We should stand before Jesus having followed His ways of humiliation and suffering so we might be exalted through the unimaginably fantastic glory of God, praising God as the Protector and Deliverer of our souls unto eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Protection

The Sword

And behold, one of them that were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and smote the servant of the high priest, and struck off his ear.
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:51-52).

The great confrontation had finally come.

The disciples had eagerly awaited the moment when they knew Jesus would inaugurate His Kingdom. They had been promised it would happen in Jerusalem; they had arrived in triumph; and now, finally, Jesus was confronted with the power of the religious authorities and the Romans. Now, they were no doubt certain, Jesus would rise up and defeat the Roman menace.

Peter was ready. He had promised Jesus he would not be offended by Jesus and would even die for Him (Matthew 26:33, 35); at his side was a sword, one of the two swords which Jesus had commended for them not long before (Luke 22:35-38).

And then all of a sudden it was not going according to the plan they had imagined. Judas had betrayed Jesus; the men with him laid hands on Jesus (Matthew 26:50). The disciples wondered: should they attack (Luke 22:49)? But then Peter then did what Peter was good at doing: he acted. Peter unsheathed the sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest; he did so perhaps to protect Jesus, or to begin the battle (Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50, John 18:10).

Yet Jesus would have none of it. He had a cup He had to drink; the Scriptures had to be fulfilled (Matthew 26:54, Luke 22:51, John 18:11). Jesus reasoned with Peter: could He not call upon God who would send twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53)? Peter well knew the story of Israel: one angel struck down an Assyrian army of 185,000 men (1 Kings 19:35); a Roman legion included around 6,000 men, so how much more could an army of 72,000 angels wreak upon the earth? Jesus then healed the servant of the high priest, and was led away to trial, suffering, and execution (Luke 22:51).

But in Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus speaks of legions of angels and the need to fulfill Scripture, Jesus stopped Peter with a powerful premise: he ought to put his sword away, for all who take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52). This is not just about this night and this moment. This is about the way of the world and the way of Jesus.

The sword is the way of the world. Ever since the fall of man, people have sought to gain advantage over others through coercive and violent force. Jesus and Peter understood the way of the sword very well: they lived under Roman oppression. Jesus was not wrong to point out that power gained with the sword must be maintained by the sword: He was about to experience the full force of the power of the sword at the hands of the religious authorities and the Romans (Matthew 26:55-27:50). The Romans had overcome the Macedonians; the Macedonians had overcome the Babylonians, who had overcome the Assyrians. A day would come when the Romans would finally be overcome themselves. Peter nursed the hope of many Israelites that God would grant them victory over the Romans, but it would involve that same sword, and would just as easily be lost by that sword. Within forty years of Jesus’ death the Israelites would take up the sword in a vain attempt to gain freedom from the pagan oppressor by it; they would die at the hands of Roman swords. Jesus’ warning became prophecy.

Matthew, throughout his Gospel, contrasts the way of the world, the way of the sword, with the way of Christ. The Pharisees and the Jewish establishment understood the Law in carnal terms; the way of the Kingdom of God in Christ demanded greater righteousness (Matthew 5:1-7:27). The Roman rulers lorded their authority over others; it would not be so among those serving in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:25-28). The Israelites would choose the Messiah of their own desire, Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist, over the Messiah whom God had sent them: Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 27:17-23). Jesus’ way involved humility, service, suffering, even death (Matthew 16:24-25, 20:25-28). Jesus’ Kingdom would not be inaugurated by His servants wielding the swords against others, as so many other kingdoms had begun; Jesus’ Kingdom would be inaugurated because the sword came for Jesus Himself.

Jesus’ words to Peter ring out to faithful believers in Christ to this day. God has empowered earthly governments to render justice and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7); they will also all go the way of all kingdoms on the earth. For the most part the people of God attempt to live by peaceful means and seek to advance God’s purposes in ways which glorify Him. But what happens when danger comes upon the people of God? What then?

Peter learned the lesson well. We have no record of Peter ever wielding the sword against another person again, even though his life was endangered on many occasions (cf. Acts 12:1-19). When threatened by the Sanhedrin, he and his fellow Apostles prayed to God for power to continue to boldly proclaim the Gospel (Acts 4:24-30). A few years before the Romans did unto him what they had done unto Jesus, Peter wrote to Christians of Asia Minor, exhorting them to suffer persecution and general evil for having done good, not to revile or repay evil for evil, but bless, because Jesus provided them an example, suffering unjustly but entrusting Himself to God who judges justly (1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:9-16, 4:1-19).

Peter and the Christians of Asia Minor found themselves in far more dangerous circumstances than most of us could even imagine. But they did not resort to violence; Peter vividly remembered what the Lord had told him, and he lived and taught accordingly. One can go far in conversation with words and acts of love and hospitality, but once one turns to the sword and violence, the affair will be decided by violence. In this way those who take the sword shall perish by it. It is not for us to trust in the ways of this world, but to follow the way of God in Christ in His Kingdom, the way of humility, service, and suffering, even, if need be, unto death (1 John 3:16, Revelation 12:11). May we, as Peter, leave the violent coercive force of the world in its sheath, and put our trust in God in Christ and follow Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Sword

The Source of Security

Except YHWH build the house / they labor in vain that build it.
Except YHWH keep the city / the watchman waketh but in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early / to take rest late / to eat the bread of toil;
For so he giveth unto his beloved sleep (Psalm 127:1-2).

From insurance to elaborate building designs, humans continue to seek various sources of security.

Solomon meditated upon the true source of security in Psalm 127:1-5. Psalm 127 is listed among the “songs of ascent,” songs which would be sung as Israelites would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and Mount Zion to the presence of YHWH at a festival. For Solomon, and the Israelites who sang this song as they climbed to stand before YHWH, only YHWH was true security. To build a new house would be vain unless YHWH protected it and provided for it. All the watchmen in the world would prove useless to a city unless YHWH watched over it. Working excessive hours to make a living independent of YHWH’s blessings proved equally vain; YHWH gives reason for those whom He loves to sleep, for they have little need to fear (Psalm 127:1-2).

Solomon will go on to glorify children as the heritage of YHWH, His reward to people (Psalm 127:3). Children are seen as arrows in the hand of a mighty man; a man with many (and ostensibly good) children will not be made ashamed in the gate of a city, the place where the elders would meet and matters were adjudicated (Psalm 127:4-5; cf. Ruth 4:1-12).

It would be easy to consider Psalm 127:3-5 as separate from Psalm 127:1-2, but a connection is there. YHWH provides for His people. He watches over them, protects them, and blesses their endeavors. No endeavor will succeed if it does not come with His blessing. Part of that provision is children who will honor their father and mother in their old age (cf. Matthew 15:4-6). The man who trusts in YHWH and is blessed by Him will have a strong house and descendants; his blessedness will be known to all; he will have no reason to be ashamed among his fellow people.

We can understand why Psalm 127 would prove to be a satisfying song of confidence in YHWH as Israelites went up to stand before Him. Israel is thus reminded that YHWH and YHWH alone is their source of confidence; all feeble human attempts to maintain their own security will fail. You can only hold so much food in barns, and even then an enemy can seize them. Military strength can take you only so far; not a few times a massive force was thoroughly defeated by a smaller one. Foreign policy is a capricious adventure: your ally one day may turn into your foe the next. Other people often prove only as good as their word, and the world has always lacked sufficient people who uphold their word. Israel always needed this reminder; temptations always existed to trust in other presumed sources of security other than God.

Christians today could also use this reminder. Far too often, in the name of worldly wisdom, Christians are tempted to put their trust in anything and everything but God. In the name of worldly wisdom we purchase insurance to mitigate the risks to health, life, and/or property; we invest resources in markets and pay into governmental schemes to provide for life in the present and/or for days of disability or retirement. We are invited to trust in government for security against all foes, domestic and foreign. Many seem to orient their lives around the proposition of risk management.

There is nothing automatically or intrinsically sinful or wrong in buying insurance, investing for retirement, or taking advantage of the social safety net. The Israelites themselves built the houses; walls and watchmen were still needed in the cities of Israel. But we must remember Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus’ message which is not unlike Solomon’s in Psalm 127. It is one thing to use insurance or investments to mitigate risk in a sensible way as one seeks to trust in God and His purposes; it is quite another to fully depend on such insurance or investments, or to orient one’s life around such insurance and investments. In the process we have no right to dismiss God’s intended “retirement program” for His people, providing an opportunity for children to honor their fathers and their mothers (1 Timothy 5:8, 16). As children we should seek to provide for parents in times of need, and to have children ourselves and instruct them in God’s right way (Ephesians 6:1-4).

We almost must take care how we use and consider Psalm 127. Israelites themselves were vexed by the apparent discrepancies between the message of Psalm 127 and its ilk and experienced reality: sometimes the righteous, whom one would imagine YHWH would protect, suffered, and the wicked, which one would imagine YHWH would not bless, nevertheless prospered (cf. Job 21:1-34, Ecclesiastes 8:10-17). It has proven all too easy to take Psalm 127 as prescriptive and to thus judge those who prosper as blessed by YHWH and those who suffer as chastised by YHWH. This might well be the case in some circumstances; it need not be the case in every circumstance.

Can we live in that ambiguity, trusting in God in Christ even though that trust does not guarantee a comfortable middle class existence in this life? Will we give more than mere lip service to Psalm 127:1-2, recognizing that our prosperity might well prove a demonic temptation to trust in the things of this world and not in God the Giver of all good things? Do we trust in YHWH as our real, lasting, and ultimate security, or have we given ourselves over to the pervasive temptation to trust in our possessions, our bank account, our portfolio, our government, our military, or other such things of the world? How much do our children factor into our confidence about our present and future? As we continue in our pilgrimage on this earth we do well to sing this song of ascent as we seek to stand before the throne of God, recognize God is the only true source of security, and seek refuge in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Source of Security